Here's the thing. I like food. Not just in the sense that I enjoy the way calories feel when they fuel my body. I like flavors and textures and color. I like to cook elaborate meals for my family with special sauces and toppings and an attention to detail. I think about how flavors come together in new and exciting ways.
I watch cooking shows and internalize those ideas to recreate in vegan ways. If I watch a show where a chef adds bacon to a dish for more than "Hey look, it has bacon," then I think about how I could add those flavors to a similar dish.
Tip: Trying to get the flavor of bacon in something? "Bacon" is just salt and fat with sweet in the form or honey or maple and smokiness. My favorite "bacon" replacement in a salad or sandwich where you want the crispy texture as well (because bacon is a texture too) is to make coconut bacon (I should warn you that just like a non-veg at a county fair, you will want to eat ALL THE BACON when you make this). For a soup, I add smoked paprika, soy sauce, and sometimes a touch of maple syrup (these three are a great addition to a bean soup). You can also use smoked nuts. There are delicious Smokehouse almonds that can be chopped up on a salad or blended smooth with water, garlic, soy sauce, and pepper to make a perfect breakfast gravy.
When I go out to eat, I have been brainwashed by the Food Network to believe that there is a head chef back in the kitchen taking pride in his or her work. I go in thinking that someone is standing at the pass like Gordon Ramsey calling anyone who puts something sub-par up a useless donkey. Not that I want anyone to be called names, it's just what they like, because they are chefs, right?
Because I believe this about professional chefs in nice restaurants, I read the menu with excitement. Look at the interesting flavor combinations they have come up with! Oh, who would have thought to use that fruit in a savory dish?! What a great fusion idea for a noodle bowl! Inspired!
If it's a somewhat reputable place, they may have a vegan option, but even super high end placed don't all have that. The hallmark of a truly good restaurant is that they say on the menu to ask for the vegan option. This means that the chef truly is a skilled craftsman and will make you a special dish that is designed to be vegan and is balanced based on umami, has protein, and is satisfying.
The other things a menu might say is, "* items can be made vegan." This means they have asterisks next to things that they have already come up with ways to make vegan. This doesn't ensure a balanced dish, but is more promising. It either means they can leave off an expensive ingredient and charge you the same price for an unbalanced dish, or it means they will make a substitution. Many times when I have asked for avocado in place of the missing cheese on something I get charged more, but I want a balanced dish. And I'm polite. And then I tip them... Talk about zero self-esteem!
Recently I was invited to a group meeting at a place that had actually won an award for "best vegan" in town, but when I looked at their menu it didn't indicate that anything could be made vegan, and it didn't have any vegan items on the menu. That means you are relying on a waiter or waitress who is going to be getting tipped by you to tell you what can really be made vegan. Here's how tips work: the more you spend/order, the more you tip. So it's in a waiter's best interest to tell you that more options are vegan than actually are.
When a menu isn't marked with what is or can be made vegan, you are at the mercy of someone who may or may not care about their job or integrity. Lucky me, I have a dairy allergy, so when I get bamboozled, I get to suffer later. I can't always pinpoint the cause, and it's not always enough that I realize I'm having a reaction, so I rarely get the chance to go back and insist I know they gave me dairy.
I went to a restaurant I had frequented for a year not long ago. I had asked EVERY time what was vegan and I ordered a lot of the same things over that time. After a year of asking and ordering and getting the same answers, I had a waitress who said, "Oh, but I thought you wanted everything vegan? That can't be made vegan." It was the samosas I had ordered every time I went there. I had ordered them while pregnant and I had never associated stomach pain with them because I had stomach upset in such irregular intervals. I asked her to really make sure. She went into the back, just as every other waiter I'd asked had done, and came back and reassured me that they were not vegan. She explained that this was not a new recipe, and that they always made it that way.
I guess my point is that I'd like to be able to go out to eat with friends (also, as a mom to two little ones, I'd like to have time to go out to eat), but I don't want to pay the prices for eating out so that I can socialize over a dry iceberg salad. If I'm going to pay to go out to eat, going to go to a restaurant where everyone is gushing over the amazing food, I'd like to eat some amazing food too. I'd like to do it without giving up my belief system. I know it's not easy to make vegan dishes if that's not what you are used to, but don't promote yourself as "vegan-friendly" if you don't know how to make a vegan dish that is delicious.